Cultural Biography of a Paper Payslip


Cultural Biography of a paper payslip


Learn how a payslip bonds employees to their employer and moves from priceless to worthless within minutes!



A paper payslip could probably sit on the hierarchical ladder of fame alongside other bits of print which have no real economic value as a commodity.  Items such as birth/wedding/death certificates, driving licences, qualifications, guarantees, warranties and receipts – proof that an individual has reached a stage, has identify or belongs to a group in our society.

A worthless piece of paper?

The payslip in itself is just a piece of paper. Printed from any printer and although some payslips have pretty logos, fancy colour schemes or come in security bonded slips – like the items listed above it is still just a piece of paper. It is worthless.  And yet, did you know the payslip plays a significant role in attaching employees to their social group and employer?

More than just payslip distribution

The purpose of a ritual is to attach an individual to his/her own society and as such many everyday items used in a ritual have symbolic value. Indeed, Thompson’s Rubbish Theory describes how a ritualistic item may move through the classification of rubbish – durable – worthless during its life-cycle. Perhaps the payslip is one of these.

In fact, we can witness the payslip giving ritual in each of our workplaces on a weekly or monthly basis. The liminal phases are evident from the eliteness and temporary higher status assumed by the person handing out the slips, to the topsy-turvy world where the paper payslip becomes a representation of real money and social status.

A payslip no more – it’s priceless

Indeed, how often do we see an employee’s agitated anticipation of the payslip’s arrival? Their eagerness to open the envelope and reveal its contents? Perhaps, obsessive and over-scrupulous analysis of the detail? But, more surprisingly, the pendulum of emotions that follows – ranging from ‘head in hand’ in financial despair, to euphoric kissing of the payslip in sheer delight or relief! Within this phase, the payslip and its contents take on a new status and collective sentiments are superimposed upon it.

The payslip has become a singularity and has transformed as a commodity; worthless to priceless.

Bonding communities

We can also see that the payslip giving ritual helps employees establish and maintain norms and values and this helps them bond as a community. Awaiting a payslip’s arrival and sharing in the joint collection and opening at a specific time becomes an act of solidarity and equality which helps tighten and strengthen the group’s bond and allegiance to the employer.

Once the payslip has been received, the employee has been metaphorically transformed from that of a single immature empty vessel, to be a matured, united and renewed member of the workforce. This is evident when a non-employee or volunteer witnesses the payslip distribution ritual and not only cannot share the common experience, but very often this creates feelings of isolation or the individual feels ostracized from the group.

A payslip’s end of life

However, at the end of the ritual, once the payslip has been opened and viewed it very quickly loses its social status and function. With little pomp and ceremony how often are payslips left in bags, screwed up in drawers or lost without a care? The central role it had played only moments before has dissipated. The payslip moves out of its ritual context, loses its symbolic meaning and resumes its pre-ritual status and value – a worthless printed piece of paper.

So next time you are handed your payslip – do consider its cultural biography because it may just be a piece of printed paper – but for a split second it was priceless and it served a central role in bonding together a whole community!

Would you like to bond your ‘community’ further with our eco-friendly and efficient online ePayslips like our client National Osteoporosis Society? Contact us

Tel: 0117 9323444

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